MSI’s Vortex Is As Powerful As It Is Stunning
If you’re here looking for a small form factor PC that plays by the rules, you’ve come to the wrong place. Oh sure, there’s nothing inherently wrong with traditional SFF cases, but when was the last time “traditional” excited anyone? We know what a box looks like, and, by and large, what we can put in it. There are rules.
MSI’s Vortex isn’t terribly fond of the rules. On the outside, it’s a sleek and stylish small form factor PC. At a mere 10.5 inches tall and a total volume of 6.5L, though, it doesn’t seem like much room for components that are even remotely powerful.
What we’re really talking about is more than a shrunk-down, coollooking computer. We’re talking about changing the way we think about SFF PCs. Beneath its unique exterior is an outrageous number of cutting-edge parts.
“Our goal in designing the Vortex was to create a radical design that would push the limits of small form factor desktop gaming without sacrificing desktop gaming performance,” says Vincent Chen, associate marketing manager at MSI.
Starting a revolution like this wasn’t easy according to Chen. He says MSI’s design team created “countless” revisions before finally deciding on the sweet little system you see before you. “Initially, the Vortex took on a more literal design, with a spiral-like exhaust, and evolved to a much more sleek and clean design.
“Trying to fit all that hardware in such a small space was no easy feat. We had to utilize cutting-edge hardware technology from both desktop components and mobile components.”
Big Power In Small Spaces
Consider your own wish list for a high-end build. You’re likely looking for a CPU with an unlocked multiplier, a respectable graphics card (or more, if you have the cash), a smokin’ solid-state drive to keep the system fast on its feet, and a mass storage drive for all your files. The Vortex checks all those boxes, and then some.
Let’s start with the processor, where MSI gives you a choice between three of Intel’s best quad-core Skylake processors. At the top of the stack is the Core i7-6700K, arguably our favorite overclocker of the family. The 6700K motors along at a crisp 4GHz, and it can bounce up to 4.2GHz as loads dictate. With four physical cores and Hyper-Threading, the 6700K can handle multi-threaded workloads like a boss.
You also have the option of Intel’s Core i5-6600K. It’s a salty CPU, too, with the same four physical cores and unlocked multiplier as the 6700K; the key distinction is that the 6600K doesn’t have Hyper-Threading, so if that’s more important to you than having an unlocked multiplier for overclocking, you might want to consider the Vortex’s third option: an Intel Core i7-6700. The standard 6700 has lower base and Turbo clocks than the 6700K (3.4GHz and 4GHz vs. 4GHz and 4.2GHz, respectively). The tradeoff is the 6700’s 65W TDP, which is almost 30% lower than the 6700K’s 91W.
“We could have utilized a mobile processor to save more space and power,” Chen says, “however, it was still viable to push performance further and integrate a socketable desktop CPU for more extreme performance and upgradeability. It all worked out perfectly.”
Regardless of the processor you pick, you’ll be able to support the latest and greatest complementary hardware. The Vortex has either 16GB or 32GB of DDR4-2133 by default, but it supports up to 64GB. (Be sure you use SO-DIMM modules.) The Z170 chipset offers plenty of PCIe 3.0 lanes, the best bus for the new crop of SSDs to hop aboard.
The Vortex’s graphics subsystem is equally impressive, if not more so. The reason? MSI manages to include not one, but two elite NVIDIA GeForce graphics cards inside the system. Like you do with the CPU, you get a choice—a pair of GTX 980s or GTX 960s. Note that these are MXM cards, so they’re not quite as potent as their desktop counterparts, but it’s close. For example, the MXM GTX 980 has the same number of CUDA cores as the desktop GTX 980, as well as the same GDDR5 memory bandwidth. Each GTX 980 in the Vortex has an 8GB frame buffer, while the GTX 960s each have 3GB. Working together in SLI, it’s easy to see why MSI’s internal testing of the Vortex revealed that the mighty mini delivers graphics performance on par with PCs that are much larger.
Good things continue to come in pairs when we move to the Vortex’s storage drives. Solid-state drives that use a combination of PCIe 3.0 and NVMe are at the top of the food chain, so MSI bestows the Vortex with two of ’em. Then, the PCIe SSDs inside the Vortex receive the Super RAID 4 treatment, a technology exclusive to MSI. According to the company, Super RAID 4 is capable of yielding a maximum throughput of up to 3,300MBps, so you can expect the Vortex to move at a very brisk pace.
A quad-core processor and two graphics cards tend to turn up the heat, which can be a dangerous proposition for SFF PCs—especially one as small as the Vortex. MSI’s engineers rose to the challenge and outfitted the Vortex with a cooling system that thumbs its nose at conventional wisdom.
MSI Storm Cooling Technology works by creating a rotating column of airflow that swirls through the system. It pulls cool air in through the bottom of the chassis and blasts hotter ambient air out through the top of the case. According to MSI, Storm Cooling Technology is extremely efficient.
“We needed to create a cooling solution that could efficiently cool a system of this size and power while still maintaining a relatively low volume for the fan,” Chen explains. “Since the Vortex is a cylindrical design, it made sense to use only a large single-fan solution so it would require less power yet still keep the system cool and stable even in extreme gaming scenarios. The single fan located at the top of the Vortex would draw in all the air from the bottom of the system and pull it throughout the core, circulating air throughout and expelling the heat through the top exhaust. It’s a very unique design.”
Incredibly, the Vortex is able to keep its components cool without sounding like a jet engine. MSI reports that the Vortex produces less than 22dB of noise at idle, and while running basic tasks (Office, web browsing, etc.) the system is scarcely louder, at less than 28dB. Even when the Vortex is running at full throttle, MSI says it will remain below 37dB.
MSI saved some ingenuity for the Vortex’s power supply. Inside, the system boasts an 80 PLUS Goldcertified PSU capable of doling out 450 watts of juice to the components. The best part about the power supply is that it’s installed within the Vortex. Unlike a mini PC, there’s no external power brick to worry about.
“During the design process, we did make changes in order to fit the PSU inside the unit,” Chen says, “because no one wants to lug around a giant power brick.”
The Killer brand has been at the forefront of networking for power users for many years, and the chips found within the Vortex work together to give gamers a comprehensive system that puts the important web traffic (as in, games) first. The genius that calls the shots is Killer’s DoubleShot-X3 Pro.
Killer DoubleShot-X3 Pro, takes advantage of the Vortex’s three networking pipelines by prioritizing the packets from your game and funneling the rest elsewhere. Important, real-time traffic goes through one of the Vortex’s two Killer E2400 Gigabit Ethernet controllers, while the second E2400 handles the medium-priority stuff, such as Twitch streams and YouTube videos. Finally, everything else (file downloads, Windows updates, etc.) travels over the Vortex’s integrated Killer Wireless-AC 1535 wireless adapter. This 802.11ac module is particularly advanced, since it supports MU-MIMO (Multiuser MIMO), which improve s throughput while simultaneously decreasing latency.
The Vortex also has an ace up its . . . cylinder: the all-new Killer Shield K9000. This nifty devil is a digital LAN transformer; what you need to know is that it’s capable of lowering latency while gaming. It should also reduce jitter.
Here Be Dragon
The Vortex’s hardware lineup is stacked with talent from top to bottom, but MSI has software at its disposal that will let you push the system’s components even more. For those who are unfamiliar, allow us to introduce MSI’s Dragon Center.
Dragon Center gives power users a tremendous amount of control over the Vortex. Overclockers can use it to finetune frequencies in order to squeeze additional performance out of their hardware. The System Monitor gives users an at-a-glance view of the PC’s vitals, including CPU and memory utilization, fan speeds, power consumption, and more. The LED Wizard takes control of the Vortex’s LEDs (obviously), giving you the ability to set a custom color for the light as well as pick from a nice list of lighting effects.
“Enthusiasts can even easily access their system information via their mobile phone with the Dragon Center App that is available for Android and iOS devices,” Chen adds.
In addition to all this power, the Vortex has the enough display outputs to run 4K video to as many as six displays. With all this in mind, it’s safe to say there’s very little the Vortex can’t handle.
At the time of this writing, MSI was prepping two versions of the Vortex for a March 16th launch. The flagship model includes two GeForce GTX 980 GPUs and 32GB of DDR4-2133 will carry a price tag of $3,999.99. If you opt for the Vortex with dual GTX 960s, you’ll get 16GB of DDR4-2133; this system’s MSRP is $2,199.99.
Whichever Vortex you choose, it’s plain to see that you’ll have a capable rig right out of the box (just add keyboard, mouse, and monitor). For your next system, defy expectations: Go big by going small.